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How are "organic" or "food based" vitamins better than generic brand vitamins?
December 4, 2007 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Given that the company making the vitamin is trustworthy (i.e. they are sold at major retail outlets) and the tablet contains what it says it contains on the side of the bottle, what are the factors that make "organic" or "food based" vitamins better?

My girlfriend recently put me on a new men's one-a-day multivitamin from a local organic food store (Mother's Market). She said that my previous vitamin, Centrum, was not good because it was made in a lab from chemicals, and that this one was superior because it is food based and organic. They sell this particular brand and others like it at places like Whole Foods, that market to the "organic" and/or "natural" shopper.

I'm not worried about the efficacy of vitamins in general. That is, I know there is debate as to whether they do what they purport to do. I'm more looking for the quality metrics.

Given that the company making the vitamin is trustworthy (i.e. they are sold at major retail outlets) and the tablet contains what it says it contains on the side of the bottle, what are the factors that make these "organic" or "food based" vitamins better?

To me, the chemicals are the same, so having the chemicals derived from food or constructed some other way seems irrelevant. Furthermore, for complex chemicals like vitamins, are the non-organic brands (e.g. Centrum, GNC) somehow deriving these chemicals from something other than food? Do the organic "food based" vitamins contain other compounds that make them more effective? Do the "lab based" non-organic brands contain other compounds that make the worse?

Or is it just a trust issue in the end (the non-organic brands just don't have in the tablet what they say on the bottle)?
posted by plecong to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think the whole organic foods/cosmetics/etc. market may have higher processing standards - you're paying a premium, after all - and they tend to have bonuses like more awareness of vegetarianism, animal testing, environmental impact, etc. The actual products, though? Honestly, I'd be more trusting of something cooked up to specific standards by a corporation concerned about major liability than the same material extracted from messy mother nature, if there really is any difference at all (calcium, for instance, being calcium no matter where you get it).

Claire: Whatever. It's something that's good for your hair.
Catherine: Like what? A chemical?
Claire: No. It's organic.
Catherine: It can be organic and still be a chemical. Haven't you ever heard of organic chemistry?
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:58 PM on December 4, 2007

No. A vitamin is a vitamin is a vitamin. As long as the ingredients are the same, it's still the same molecule going into you. And you're going to use it the same way. It's not like "organic" B12 is any different than "synthetic" B12.

Maybe organic B12 is made from some animal byproduct derivative, while synthetic B12 is manufactured from smaller chemicals or something like that. Anyway, the difference would be less than insignificant.
posted by ruwan at 5:05 PM on December 4, 2007

I think there's a bigger difference in the form the multivitamin takes than the origin of its ingredients. I've found that powder-filled gelatin capsules (Twinlabs), liquid vitamins (various sources), and chewables (Trader Joes) all absorb better than the solid, hard 'bedpan bullets.'
posted by mullingitover at 5:15 PM on December 4, 2007

I agree that this sounds like it's mostly bunk. However, I could see a case being made for a difference in the binder/filler material used to make the bulk of the pill -- maybe one brand's formulation is easier to digest or doesn't have as much of an aftertaste or whatever. But that has nothing to do with it being organic or wholesome per se, just that they might use a different formulation. The actual vitamin part really shouldn't be any different.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:40 PM on December 4, 2007

(Ooops, I did not see mullingitover's reply in time and essentially duplicated everything he said.)
posted by Rhomboid at 5:41 PM on December 4, 2007

I would love if anyone had any credible data on the matter. It was my vague understanding that a vitamin was not, in fact, a vitimin is a vitamin is a vitamin, but that there were a multitude of similar chemicals with varying chains and extensions and whatnot, just like drugs, and that they had different levels of bio-availability, absorption rates, and half-lives in the blood. They even market different esters of vitamin C, and I know I've heard there being various types of the particular B vitamins. What I hear people saying is that synthesized vitamins are not nearly as effective and what you can obtain from foods is all around better. But again I'd love to see some hard data, this sort of thing must be studied, mustn't it?
posted by kaspen at 5:47 PM on December 4, 2007

There is no scientific evidence that C6H8O6 is somehow healthier if it comes from an orange that if it comes from some other force that combines carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

It makes absolutely no sense to believe that it would make a difference.

There is a severe downside to organic vitamins as well, in that it is significantly more difficult to know precisely how much of something you have when you get it by grinding up roots than it is when you get it via well controlled chemical reactions.

Sadly, a lot of hippie types will blather on about how evil all chemicals are, even though they probably have a degree in Art History from Smokealotofpot University.

Natural != good for you
Chemical != bad for you
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 5:58 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

That said, if you don't feel like telling your cute hippie girlfriend that her beliefs have no basis in science, rest easy and know that if you eat a reasonably well-balanced diet, don't have cancer or diabetes, and aren't pregnant, that your vitamins aren't doing anything anyway.

As such, it's really a question of which unnecessary thing you want to turn into poop, and that really doesn't matter at all.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 6:03 PM on December 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

I really don't know the answer to this question, but here are some things to consider. Think of this as some questions to get you start on your own research if you feel motivated

It is not true that a vitamin is a vitamin is a vitamin. There different forms of many different types of vitamins and your body may absorb the different forms differently. Or your body may respond to the different forms differently. Often your body can convert the forms to each other, but it isn't always 100% efficient.

If you start looking at trace minerals, it gets more complicated. If you want iron, eating elemental iron isn't the best way to get it. There are various iron bearing compounds that you body can easily absorb and use. I have heard that some multivitamins will just put iron fillings in their pill to get the iron content up to what they say they have (that could just be FUD). Food based sources are more likely to have forms that you can absorb and use since the human body is adapted to absorb it from those sources historically.

And science isn't done on micronutrients. People keep discovering different chemicals that are good for our bodies in various ways. Vitamins are the complete catalog of micronutrients that your body needs. Take a look into fatty acids (especially omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, since there has been plenty of hub-bub about them lately) or antioxidants. Food sources are more likely to contain a variety of chemicals that we haven't really pinned down as necessary.

My general feel is that getting your nutrients from real food is better than any vitamin, and vitamins from food sources are probably more diverse in their content than synthetic sources. That that is just a general guideline I live by and may not really apply to vitamins.

Another comparison that comes to mind is breast milk vs. formula. They they to synthesize breast milk, but there are so many distinct chemicals in breast milk that formula never gets it all right and studies constantly show breast milk as better than formula. The formula people keep finding new chemicals that are important and adding them and advertising that their formula has x amount of the new chemical that studies show are important for your baby's brain.
posted by recursion at 6:06 PM on December 4, 2007

We've debated this before.
posted by decathecting at 6:09 PM on December 4, 2007

I think organic vitamins are considered to have greater bioavailabilty than synthetic vitamins - JA Vinson's work seems to get cited a lot by the Health Food crowd to this effect, but IANAC(hemist).

Some scientists (Roy Walford springs to mind) have posited a undiscovered 'Vitamin X'(Not the punk band!) that is necessary for humans. Walford used this to support his crayzeeee diet ideas, but an organically derived vitamin might have Vitamin X, and a synthesized one might not. But the same could be said of tree bark, toads, or lug nuts.
posted by Orb2069 at 6:09 PM on December 4, 2007

Decathecting: Thanks! I'm sorry I didn't see that post. I searched for awhile on vitamins and quality, but was unable to find it.
posted by plecong at 6:32 PM on December 4, 2007

I am reminded of Michael Pollan's recent NYT article (especially page 4, starting on the third paragraph), wherein he says in a nutshell that synthetic vitamin supplements are incomplete when it comes to providing the benefits that some foods provide, and that it's better to get your nutrients from actual foods. He reasons that there are probably micronutrients and other factors in the foods that may be necessary for the bioavailability of the nutrients. To me, that would suggest that the 'food-based' supplements might be a better choice.
posted by statolith at 6:37 PM on December 4, 2007

A lot of vitamins aren't made from "chemicals", at least in the sense that most dirty hippies think of when they think of big-bad AgriCorps poisoning our food-supply with drums, beakers or flasks of Deadly Chemicals. They're fermented from bacteria or other biological organisms. Take the synthesis of B12 for example.

So in that case, I think the question we should be asking is whether the fermentation environment and process is clean. I'm guessing industrial fermentation is more like industrial farming. There are probably all kinds of adulterants that get into the process, whether it's fungus or something else.

Personally, I'm getting sick and tired of this War on Chemicals. So yeah, in summary, chemicals != bad. Using fear to sell products == bad, whether it's our side or theirs.
posted by formless at 6:54 PM on December 4, 2007

All vitamins are "organic", whether or not they are synthesized- they are organic compounds.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:57 PM on December 4, 2007

These are both subscription-based, but if you're feeling hardcore enough, try checking out the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database ("evidence-based, clinical information on natural medicines," which does give some access to non-subscription content) or (independent testing of health and nutrition products).
posted by tentacle at 8:13 PM on December 4, 2007

How are "organic" or "food based" vitamins better than generic brand vitamins?

They might be a little bit better.
First, synthesized vitamins will always contain some by-products. You can't archive a yield of 100%.
Second, most substances in nature are chira, like left and right hand. The synthesized Vitamin may only contain one form of the vitamin since it is much cheaper to produce.

So are "organic" Vitamins better than chemicaly produced Vitamins? Possibly. But noting beats a fresh pressed juice and you daily vegetables with all the substances that can catch chemical radicals. To belive that you can live healthy by swalling tablets is an illusion.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:34 PM on December 4, 2007

Interesting... I would have thought there were at least a few industrial / pharmaceutical chemists active here.

Non-US anecdote: a guy I sort of know works for a large independent pharmaceutical manufacturer here, doing product/manufacturing design & QC. The way he tells it, basically the distributors come to his department and say "we want vitamin Z tablets/capsules, this binder, this coating, in this style" - and they make them. All the base ingredients come out of the same bins; the only differences being where a distributor insists on something special e.g. no animal products (like gelatin, etc) to be used. Effectively, in most cases, apart from colouring/presentation/packaging, there's no difference between "Nature's Blessed" and supermarket home-brand vitamins and minerals.

(Last time I spoke to him spoke, he was whinging about a particularly difficult customer who was specifying special 'homeopathicaly treated' ingredients. I believe they were on the verge of telling the customer "yes, we can do that, not a problem" - while writing "Hopper #9, like everybody else" on the manufacturing paperwork.)

It's a bit like that Simpsons episode where Homer goes to the Duff beer factory - and nobody notices Duff Draught, Duff Dry, and Duff Lite all come out of the same pipe...
posted by Pinback at 11:43 PM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

For some vitamins there is no difference - they are molecularly the same. For others, there is a difference in absorption, but it does not really matter. For others, there is a big difference, no matter what mefi skeptics say. Natural vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol) for example, has been shown to be more effective than the synthetic form(dl-alpha-tocopherol). This is not even controversial anymore. Isolated beta carotene has been shown to be harmful to health, possibly because normally beta carotene always occurs together with other caratenoids.

The whole food brands are more likely to contain these "better" forms of vitamins, but not necessarily always. There are also many other factors that are important in absorption, such as what minerals are included, and in what form. It is perfectly possible to have a whole food supplement that has magnesium-oxide, which is a cheap and not very useful form of magnesium.
posted by davar at 2:33 AM on December 5, 2007

New York times blog article reporting that it vitamin intake through food might be better than the equivalent through supplements. It reports on the work of University of Minnesota professor of epidemiology David R. Jacobs who argues for 'Food Synthesis' -- the notion that the health benefits of certain foods come from their ingredients in combination.

This doesn't make an argument for food based supplements however — it makes an argument for eating a proper diet.
“People ask me what vitamins they should take,’’ said Dr. Jacobs. “I say ‘Don’t take any. Just make sure you have a nutrient-rich diet.’ ’’

posted by tallus at 3:50 AM on December 5, 2007

I agree that it is better to get vitamins from food. It seems a no brainer to me. An orange is so much more than vitamin C. However, I found that that is not as easy as it sounds. I eat a very healthy diet, much healthier than most people. I cannot get enough iodine or vitamin D without supplements. Most people in my country (where there is not enough sun radiation to get our skin to make vitamin D ourselves) get those nutrients by eating fortified salt and margarine, but then of course I might just as well take the supplements myself and skip the salt and margarine.

I'd also argue that a professor of epidemiology is not necessarily an expert when it comes to food supplements. Even people who are knowledgeable disagree on the subject. Harvard's Walter Willett, for example, does recommend a vitamin pill a day as "insurance".
posted by davar at 5:08 AM on December 5, 2007

The purpose of "organic" applied to anything other than agricultural products is to get people who can afford to do so to pay more money. If you've got the extra money, you might as well buy the more expensive stuff, if for no other reason than to put more money into the economy and to show that there's a market for organic stuff.

I guess the button says "best" answer rather than "most truthful", but I would have marked this, rather than the one you did. This answer, unfortunately, is factually incorrect in almost every sentence.

First, synthesized vitamins will always contain some by-products. You can't archive a yield of 100%.
You can't get 100% in neither synthesis nor isolation. This doesn't argue either way.

Second, most substances in nature are chira, like left and right hand. The synthesized Vitamin may only contain one form of the vitamin since it is much cheaper to produce.
1: It's chiral, not chira.
2: To say that most "substances" are chiral means only that the person making the statement doesn't understand the meaning of the word.
3: It's actually much, much more difficult to do chiral synthesis.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:10 PM on December 6, 2007

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